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The Basics of Collecting Tribal Art

Tribal art appeals to many people, often for different reasons. Perhaps it is a historic or ancestral interest that fuels one’s fascination. Or perhaps it’s just the aesthetic appeal of tribal artworks that inspires a new collector to enter the field.

With interest in tribal art continuing to grow, and interesting pieces coming to auction regularly, opportunities to discover and acquire meaningful objects are definitely available. To help lay the framework for this fascinating subject, we turn to one of the foremost auction houses specializing in tribal art – Artemis Gallery in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bob Dodge and his wife, Teresa, co-founded and serve as joint executive directors of Artemis Gallery, one of the world’s most respected names in tribal and ethnographic art and antiquities. Bob graciously shared information about what constitutes tribal art and offered authoritative advice on how to start or expand on a collection.

Native American bird effigy bowl carved by the Mound Builder culture of North America from a single piece of stone, circa 500 to 1200 CE. Artemis Gallery image

What is your definition of tribal art?

To us, tribal art is the sum total of the visual arts of indigenous (sometimes referred to as ethnographic) peoples from around the globe.

How are tribal art and antiquities most often categorized? Is it by region or type of item? How can this knowledge aid potential collectors?

Tribal arts, like antiquities, are most commonly categorized according to region, however there are many other ways of categorizing them. Some more common ones can be material, purpose (mask, fetish, votive, offering, ceremonial, etc.), time period, or others. This can certainly aid a potential collector by putting items into meaningful and searchable groups.

Information is perhaps the single most important element of any collecting passion. So, having the ability to find information about legality, availability, value and authenticity can be critical.

What are some of the more common types of tribal art coming to auction, and what are  some of the rarest pieces you’ve handled?

By far the most common form of tribal art on the market would be African wooden masks and figures. By most estimates, I think you could find well over a million examples, with most of them having been created for the tourist trade. Some of the rarest – and at times the most macabre – items we have seen and handled include decorated human skulls created by tribal groups in the South Pacific, Maori jade Tiki figures, and early Australian aboriginal art and artifacts such as throwing sticks and boomerangs.

Circa mid-20th century carved wood figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kuba peoples. Artemis Gallery image

Are certain types of tribal art (bowls, figures, masks, etc.) more specific to a region of the world?

Yes, art by region can be pretty specific and pretty common. Masks from Africa, ancestor figures from Papua New Guinea, large bowls and vessels from the Amazonian tribes, decorated bowls from the American Southwest – all would be examples of regional art.

How has the tribal art market changed during recent years?

The Internet has been a major game-changer for the tribal art market, including the antiquities trade. Dealers in the past were pretty much able to set their own prices depending upon the wealth of their client base. The law of supply and demand was almost irrelevant, because nobody could track either side of the equation.

The Internet has allowed collectors to shop virtually worldwide and see what prices other dealers are asking, as well as easily look at prices realized by major and minor auction houses. The Internet has opened literally hundreds, if not thousands of sources for good material.

Face maskette made of dark greenstone with light green and russet striated inclusions, Pre-Columbian, Mexico, Guerro, Mezcala, circa 500 to 200 BCE. Artemis Gallery image

What would you say to a collector who is interested in acquiring tribal art but wonders about affordability?

A new collector of tribal art has so many options available to them that price should not be a deterrent. I am a collector of ancient art, first and foremost, and a dealer secondarily. I have been able to find wonderful buys at prices even below $100. If someone has a passion for the arts, money should not slow them down in the slightest.

How about potential collectors who may be concerned about legal disputes over rightful ownership of tribal items – what advice might you be able to share?

The laws of cultural patrimony are complicated and confusing. The basics are that if a cultural item has been in the U.S. for more than 20 years, the buyer and seller are safe. Any collector, new or old, should ask for specific information about when an item was acquired, and when it left its country of origin. Then, make sure that information is conveyed in writing on any sales transaction.

Pre-Columbian gilded gold mask, Sican-Chimu culture of North Coast Peru, circa 800-1000 CE. Artemis Gallery image

Can you please describe the TL testing process, and the important role the Artemis testing lab serves?

TL testing (thermoluminescence) is one of many tools available to determine the authenticity of an item that is ceramic or made of terracotta pottery. It takes tiny bits of the pottery, done by drilling very small holes into unobtrusive areas, and subjects the samples to an analysis that ascertains how much stored light radiation is in that object. We can then graph the amount of this stored energy to determine when the pottery item was last subjected to high heat, and therefore created. By developing a commercial lab here in the United States, we are able to help collectors and dealers alike in selling authentic objects with scientific analysis as the proof.

What are three items of advice you have for anyone who wishes to start a collection of tribal art?

  1. Be passionate about your collection. Buy what you love, not what you think makes a good investment.
  2. Be skeptical. Go into every transaction assuming the pieces may not be authentic and requires proof to the contrary. Believe the piece, not the story behind it. Stories can be faked, and often are, but the piece itself will usually lead you to the truth.
  3. Be diligent when amassing your collection. Record every aspect about each piece – especially its history, provenance and details of your purchase. That way you will have a solid record should you ever wish to sell, or should your family pick up the collecting bug.

How would you complete this sentence: Tribal art represents…

A way of connecting to peoples who are or were in many respects just like us, and yet, are or were simultaneously so very different. Tribal art expands our ability to appreciate others as well as ourselves.


About Artemis Gallery:

Since 1993, Bob and Teresa Dodge have headquartered their thriving global business at Artemis Gallery in Boulder, Colorado. They are known for their online auctions of highest-quality antiquities, ancient and ethnographic art, offering a 100% guarantee of authenticity and legality on each and every piece they sell. The company specializes in pottery, stone, metal, wood, glass and textile objects from South America, Central America and Mexico, as well as artifacts from Greece, Italy, Rome, Egypt, the Middle East, China, India, Japan and the South Pacific.

Tribal Masks Embody October 2nd African Art Auction

The upcoming October 2nd African art auction is composed of more than 40 tribal masks and complemented by related items. Carved out in this collection are masks and objects integral to traditional African ceremonies. Imbued with stylized detail and tremendous depth of meaning, handcrafted African pieces are widely exhibited alongside modern sculptures.

An evocative mask of the Pende people bears a resemblance to Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream paintings. Pende masks were used during rituals involving initiation and education.

Pende mask, carved wood, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 15 x 8 1/2 inches. Estimate: $200-$300

Pende mask, carved wood, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 15 x 8 1/2 inches. Estimate: $200-$300

Another eerie mask is by the Songye people, also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have long been considered superior artisans best known for their pottery and metalwork.

Songye carved wood mask, 8 1/2 x 8 3/4 inches. Estimate: $400-$500

Songye carved wood mask, 8 1/2 x 8 3/4 inches. Estimate: $400-$500

The Lega people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo use masks as vital initiation objects that enforce social order. One of their masks in the auction has a Close Encounters look to it.

Lega carved wood mask, 11 1/2 x 8 4/4 inches. Estimate: $300-$400

Lega carved wood mask, 11 1/2 x 8 4/4 inches. Estimate: $300-$400

Yoruba priests in Nigeria enlist the aid of Osanyin, the spirit of herbal medicines. Osanyin healing staffs were used to ward off the spirits that would “drain the life force out of people” thus making them ill. This healing staff, the opening lot in the sale, dates to the 19th or 20th century.

Yoruba Osanyin bird healing staff. Estimate: $400-$600

Yoruba Osanyin bird healing staff. Estimate: $400-$600

Yoruba healers wear masks to drive away evil spirits. The Yoruba people also use masks during funerary ceremonies to embody the spirit of the deceased.

Yoruba carved wood mask, 14 x 8 1/2 inches. Estimate: $200-$300

Yoruba carved wood mask, 14 x 8 1/2 inches. Estimate: $200-$300